Gender Roles in Children’s Books: An Examination of Little House in the Big Woods and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone People use several different classification systems to help organize a complex society. For example, scientists use a system composed of hierarchies in order to place animals in their proper kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. By creating this classification system, people of society are better able to understand the relationships that these animals have with each other.
Just as scientists use this hierarchy to organize animals, people use the concept of gender to classify their own kind. However, many people fail to realize that gender, unlike the system of hierarchies used by scientists to classify animals, is not biologically based. While sex is a biological concept, gender can be defined as the sociological, psychological, and cultural attributes that society associates with sex. Thus, society creates gender roles, and, accordingly, “does gender.
In other words, people require that others act out the gender roles set by society if they want to be part of the social norm. The purpose of this paper, then, is to first examine literature which discusses ways in which society “does gender”, and then examine the manner in which authors of children’s books promote these gender roles that society has assigned. Judith Lorber’s article entitled, “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender” (as qtd. in Ferguson, 2005) is one example of a piece of literature that examines “doing gender.
In this article, she argues that the concept of gender exists because of socialization; that is, society teaches that certain characteristics should be associated with boys while other characteristics should be associated with girls. As aforementioned, in order to demonstrate why society uses gender classifications from birth, Lorber says that people must look at gender as a social institution in that “gender is one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives” (as qtd. in Ferguson, 121). One of the ways that people allocate others for performing tasks in society, then, is through gender classification.
After discussing socialization theory, Lorber goes on to give several examples of how people “do gender” in today’s society. For example, she discusses how men with baby carriers are stared at approvingly on the bus because these men are seen as changing the role of fathers more towards the domestic end of the spectrum, a role that was previously played only by mothers. She also discusses several signs that people use to identify the gender of another person. From birth, baby boys are dressed in blue and baby girls are dressed in pink and are sometimes characterized by pierced ears.
Once gender roles are assigned, people treat one another accordingly. Boys are taught to be competitive and are trained to use teamwork, whereas girls are treated more delicately because society expects them to be nurturing. From birth on, then, girls and boys are taught by society what it means to be feminine and masculine, respectively. Another sociologist, Michael Messner, illustrates how society “does gender” by discussing the elective affinity between masculinity and sports through his piece entitled, “Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities” (as qtd. Ferguson, 2005).
In this article Messner claims that sports teach people to devalue femininity, which is evident through negative expressions coined by society such as “You throw like a girl. ” Because playing sports teaches aggression and teamwork, the world of sports is an institution that is built around masculinity. Even when women play sports, they are masculinized. Due to the idea that gender roles are assigned at birth, it would be interesting to explore how children’s book authors promote masculinity and femininity through the messages conveyed in their storytelling.
Two books from different time periods, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, will be examined. Lorber would argue that in Little House in the Big Woods, originally written in 1932, Wilder assigns her characters traditional gender roles. For example, the male is depicted as the provider and protector of the females in the family. Wilder states, “Pa might hunt alone all day in the bitter cold, in the Big Woods covered with snow, and come home at night with nothing for Ma and Mary and Laura to eat” (5-6).
While it is Pa’s job to face the harsh elements in search of food, fight off bears (or stumps) with clubs, discipline the children through physical means, and drive the buggy, it is Ma’s duty to stay home with the children and do the housework. Ma describes her weekly routine by saying, “Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday” (29). In addition, Wilder depicts the women in her book to be concerned with physical beauty, while the men are not concerned with their appearances.
A prime example of this preoccupation with beauty occurs as Laura’s aunts get ready for the dance at Grandpa’s. Wilder describes this event and states, “Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby made themselves pretty in their roomLaura sat on their bed and watched them comb out their long hair and part it carefullyThey helped each other with their corsetsAunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, I guess that’s the best you can do'” (140). This quote illustrates that the females in the book are willing to go to extreme means to look beautiful.
Lorber might argue that Laura and Mary become aware of a woman’s need to look pretty due to socialization. In other words, Ma, Aunt Docia, and Aunt Ruby pass down to them the idea that women should be attractive, for Laura and Mary become very concerned with the way they dress, the way that their hair is combed, and whether blonde or brown hair is prettier. Wilder also portrays the message that girls, not boys, should act proper at all times. Ma speaks to Laura and Mary about her own childhood and states, “It was harder for little girls.
Because they had to behave like ladies all the time, not only on Sundays. Little girls could never slide down the hill, like boys. Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers” (96). This statement promotes the idea that girls should be passive, reserved, and remain in the home, unlike boys, who should engage in more aggressive, physical, outdoor activities. It is also interesting to note that Wilder has even limited the animals in this book to traditional gender roles. For example, every dog mentioned in the story is male, whereas every cat is female.
Dogs are generally thought to be more aggressive and protective then cats (hence the idea of the watchdog), and in essence, more masculine. Thus, it is no surprise that in the opening scene of the story, Jack the Bulldog (as opposed to Jill the Bulldog) lay watch over Pa’s gun during the night in order to protect Ma and the girls from the wolves. Although the characters in Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods exhibit traditional gender roles, those in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone portray a different message as to what it means to be male and female.
The book begins by describing the Dursley’s as a family with traditional roles. Rowling states, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normalMr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck… Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck” (1). Like Pa, Mr. Dursley is the provider for the family and is described with masculine words. Mrs. Dursley stays home and takes care of their child, Dudley, and she is described with more delicate words.
The idea that this family is “perfectly normal” illustrates that the norms set by society may still involve these traditional gender roles. However, Rowling quickly attaches negative connotations to the way that this family functions. Once Harry reaches Hogwart’s School of Wizardry, which is the embodiment of everything that society would not consider normal, traditional gender roles disappear for the most part. Not only are there women leaders at the school, such as Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress, but some males have feminine qualities while some females have masculine characteristics.
For example, Harry is described as “small and skinny” with a “thin face and knobby knees” (20), while Pansy Parkinson is depicted as a “hard-faced Slytherin girl” who does not like “fat little cry-babies” (148). In addition, females at Hogwart’s are encouraged to be just as aggressive as the males. For instance, there are girls on the Quidditch team, such as Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, and Katie Bell, and they are just as talented as the boys on the team.
An announcer at one of the first games of the season speaks of a play and says, “And the Quaffle is taken immediately by Angelina Johnson of GryffindorJohnson back in possession of the Quaffle, a clear field ahead and off she goesshe’s really flyingdodges a speeding BludgerGRIFFINDOR’S SCORE! ” (186). This statement helps to illustrate the elective affinity between masculinity and sports that Messner describes. The game of Quidditch teaches all players, male and female, to be aggressive and use teamwork in order to succeed.
Finally, both men and women possess bravery and play the role of the “protector” at Hogwart’s. When Hermione is cornered by a troll in the girls bathroom, “Harry stuck his wand up its nose and Ron knocked it out with its own club” (178), thereby saving her life. On the other hand, when Harry is about to be knocked off his broom at the Quidditch game, Hermione saves the day by fighting “her way across to the stand where Snape stood”, knocking “Professor Quirrel headfirst into the front row”, and casting a spell (191). All of this happens as Ron looks on and Neville cries into Hagrid’s jacket.
Based on the various examples provided, the gender role messages portrayed by Wilder and Rowling differ significantly. While Wilder’s characters exhibit traits that help to reinforce the gender norms created by society, Rowling seems to suggest that life is more interesting when these traditional gender roles are bent, just as life is more exciting at Hogwart’s than at the Dursley household. Therefore, in order for males and females to feel comfortable taking advantage of the plethora of opportunities that are available to them, members of society must strive to bend the gender roles that they have assigned.